Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Reconfiguring Faculty Roles for Virtual Settings

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Reconfiguring Faculty Roles for Virtual Settings

Article excerpt

In 1995 several Western governors decided to create a virtual postsecondary institution to confer competency-based degrees. Several issues motivated these governors. Enrollment demand threatened to exceed the physical capacities of their higher education institutions. Constructing new physical facilities to meet this demand was fiscally unfeasible. In addition, online delivery of learning opportunities potentially would make higher education accessible to students in remote rural locations that typify the western regions of the United States. Harnessing the power of the Internet to deliver instruction seemed to offer the economies of scale to meet both objectives. Also, competency-based education with third-party certification of what graduates know and can do made sense in an employment climate where it is commonplace to question what it means to have a degree. Other less obvious reasons for gubernatorial and corporate support for what became Western Governors University (WGU) include a variety of political interests, a desire to foster innovation in higher education institutions, and a need to actively address business requirements for competent graduates.

When the idea of WGU was first introduced, little was known about the costs of technology-based instruction and at what point economies of scale might be achieved. WGU's development was a manifestation of forces working imperceptibly within most of higher education. These forces are now much more apparent. Costs of education, particularly instructional costs per student, are a concern as budgets tighten. Similarly, the cost effectiveness of various educational approaches and technologies are of growing interest (for more information on technology costs see Ehrmann & Milam, 1999; Finkelstein, Frances, Jewett, & Scholz, 2000; Jewett, 2000; Jones, 2000; Jones & Jewett, 2000; Twigg, 2000).

The technology-driven competency-based form of postsecondary education envisioned for Western Governors University required reconceptualizing the faculty role. Recent business and medical practices of disaggregating complex activities into component parts suggested that WGU faculty roles be "unbundled." That is, rather than incorporating the responsibility for all technology-and competency-based functions into a single concept of "faculty member," WGU disaggregated faculty instructional activities and assigned them to distinct professionals. This article draws on several years of experience by key staff at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) in building the academic and technical infrastructures for Western Governors University.

The concept of unbundling in higher education was introduced as early as the mid-1970s by a law professor who suggested that higher education violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by bundling "impartation of information, counseling, credentialing, coercion, and club membership" (Wang, 1981). Wang defined these activities as follows: "Impartation of information" was the actual classroom interaction of faculty and students. Counseling referred to both academic advising and personal interventions. Credentialing "consist[s] of grading the work of students and awarding degrees (p. 56)." "Coercion" reflects the pressure to do well academically brought to bear on individual students by interacting with faculty, administrators, and peers. Finally, "club membership" referred to the (then) exclusivity of college attendance and the specialized interactions, both academic and social, that attendance brought with it. About the same time, Troutt (1979) applied the idea to community colleges by suggesting that faculty instruc tional time be deconstructed into three areas: direct instruction, assessment of student learning, and academic advising. Since then the term "unbundling" has been infrequently used in reference to faculty work. Recently, it has been resurrected to describe how to assign costs associated with discharging distinct aspects of instruction. …

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